Why Cheltenham is the most-special horse racing event in the world

The countdown to the 2017 Cheltenham Festival is on and the excitement ahead of the meeting continues to build. The fixture has become the jewel in the British racing crown in recent years and the Festival’s popularity continues to grow, but what makes it the most special meeting in the world, asks Peter Hodges.

THERE is no greater feeling for a horse racing supporter, than standing in the midst of the fervent throngs on Gold Cup day at the Prestbury Park.

As you hear the thundering crescendo of an equine orchestra round the final bend and enter the home straight, you are filled with an insatiable surge of adrenaline - an emotional rush no rollercoaster or bungee jump could ever recapture.

The voices around you reach fever-pitch in a tumultuous chorus, but every punter – no matter which of the protagonists they are calling home – are singing from the same song sheet, a score composed over nearly two centuries of history. It’s the song of the Cheltenham Festival – the original, the illustrious, the greatest event in the sport of horse racing.

Since 1861, horse racing’s elite have gathered in the small county of Gloucestershire, all vying for some of the most historic prizes in the sporting world. Battling against one another, to prove who the best in the business really is.

A win at the Cheltenham Festival makes all the long days, all the early mornings, all the sleepless nights worthwhile for any trainer and their connections.

It’s the perfect reward for the stable hands and the yard keepers, who work their fingers to the bone with very little recognition.

For the horse, that victory is a rite of passage, a golden ticket into the pantheon of National Hunt racing’s finest – all of which have sought fame and fortune at the Cheltenham Festival and more often than not, come away with the highest accolades.

The role of honour at Prestbury Park is dominated by British entrants. However, Irish raiders have more than played their part in shaping the history of the Festival - with the unrelenting passion of the traveling Irish faithful adding an irreplaceable spice to the atmosphere throughout the four day meeting.

 

Last season was close to being the most memorable in the annals of Irish jumps racing, as trainer extraordinaire, Willie Mullins attempted to topple Ditcheat demi-god, Paul Nicholls atop the training standings – and become the first Irish trainer to ever claim the British Champion Trainer crown.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Despite Mullins coming away from Cheltenham with a slight advantage, Nicholls managed to arrest top spot from the Irishman’s clutches over the final few weeks of the campaign.

The well-publicised fall out between Mullins and certain Gigginstown connections lead to 60 horses being removed from Mullins care and ferried out to competitor’s yards. This was a massive blow to Mullins’ Champion Trainer hopes, a blow it may take him a few rounds to recover from. One thing is certain however, and that is Mullins will once again make the much-travelled voyage over the Irish Sea, with his battalion of potential champions in-toe, as he looks to etch his name further into the Cheltenham Festival history books.

The titanic tussle between Mullins and Nicholls offered an interesting subplot to the meeting last year, but once the races got underway, we were treated to some heart-stopping drama on the track.

Whether you were in attendance on the opening Tuesday or the final Friday – or watched all the scintillating action on the television - you will have witnessed some truly memorable sporting moments…

Altior powering away from the field to claim the Supreme Novices’ - swiftly followed by the indomitable mare, Annie Power reclaiming her Cheltenham crown - proved to be the perfect curtain raiser to get the 2016 Festival underway.

Nicky Henderson’s joyous tears joined the puddles of rain and beer collecting upon the Prestbury Park turf on day two, when the unforgettable Sprinter Sacre returned to the Cheltenham winner’s circles in breath-taking fashion, claiming a second Queen Mother crown, on what would prove to be his last outing on a race track.

The late, great Vautour made history on day three, becoming the first horse since Bob’s Worth to win three different races at the Cheltenham Festival. Before this year’s Gold Cup leading light, Thistlecrack stormed to the World Hurdle title.

The groans of the partisan crowd could have been heard half-way across the country on the final day, after fans-favourite Cue Card’s quest for immortality was cruelly ended just three fences from the finish.

Don Cossack galloped gamely to Gold Cup glory, leaving Gordon Elliott to rejoice amongst his gathering of supporters, as Colin Tizzard cursed the racing gods for Cue Card’s final, fateful leap.

So while flat racing may have the edge on extravagance and plain toffery, it simply cannot compete with National Hunt racing in terms of theatre and excitement. The Cheltenham Festival is the home of Jumps racing - it’s unparalleled, unmissable, undeniably the greatest spectacle in all of 

The Cheltenham Festival is the home of Jumps racing - it’s unparalleled, unmissable, undeniably the greatest spectacle in all of horse racing.

Make sure your schedule is clear between the 14 th and 17 th of March, because this year’s Festival will be a celebration of sporting superiority you simply can’t afford to miss.

 

Cheltenham in numbers

Sometimes numbers can illuminate events better than any writer’s descriptive powers. If you were doubting the sheer grandeur of the Cheltenham Festival, here are a few facts and figures gathered from recent renewals which might sway your judgement:

- The Gloucestershire economy will rake in over £100,000,000, thanks to the Cheltenham Festival.

- Almost 68,000 fanatical racing fans will pour through the Prestbury Park gates on Gold Cup day.

- The £575,000 Gold Cup prize pot makes it most valuable non-handicap race in Britain. With the overall prize money dished out at the festival scaling £4,000,000.

- 30 extra flights from Dublin to Birmingham are put on during March every year, helping to transport a healthy portion of the 10,000 strong Irish contingent, who will travel to Cheltenham for the Festival.

- Turnstiles at Cheltenham Spa train station will be spun by over 105,000 Festival-goers, with over 80,000 choosing to make the short hop to the course on the local shuttle bus.

- Over 260,000 pints of Guinness, 120,000 bottles of wine and 20,000 bottles of champagne will be quaffed by spectators over the whole festival.

- Over £600,000,000 will be wagered on races at the Cheltenham Festival.

For the latest news, previews and tips, visit Cheltenhamfestival.net for an unofficial guide to the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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